Saudi Arabia targets Hezbollah operatives with sanctions
LONDON - In a move in line with its new assertive foreign policy, Saudi Arabia designated two high-ranking Hezbollah officials as terrorists, accusing the members of the Lebanese Islamist militia of spreading chaos and instability in the Middle East.
The kingdom identified Khalil Youssef Harb and Mohammed Qabalan, who were labelled terrorists by the United States in 2013, for what it described as overseeing “violent operations” in the Middle East.
The US Department of the Treasury welcomed the news, describing the announcement as a reflection of the close counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries.
“The US Department of the Treasury commends the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the steps it took today to sanction Khalil Harb and Mohammed Qabalan,” Adam Szubin, US Treasury acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement. “The United States will continue to work with partners around the world to combat Hezbollah’s activities, both within Lebanon and beyond.”
This comes almost a month after the two countries sanctioned South Asia-based charity Al-Furqan Foundation Welfare Trust for its involvement in funding Pakistani and Afghan branches of al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Lebanese officials pledged to pursue the matter. In statements to local media, Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said the government would ask Saudi authorities for their files on the Hezbollah officials “in order to take the local necessary measures”.
Harb and Qabalan have had long and decorated careers within the militant group.
According to Saudi government, Harb, 57, served as the group’s deputy commander and then commander for Hezbollah’s central military unit. He supervised Hezbollah’s central military operations as well as its operations throughout the Middle East. Harb is accused of playing a central role in funding the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia is currently fighting. It is believed he provided the Houthis with a minimum of $50,000 a month since 2012.
Qabalan, 46, whom the US government described as a Hezbollah terrorist cell leader, once served as the head of the group’s infantry. In 2008, he headed a Hezbollah sleeper cell, which targeted tourist destinations in Egypt.
Qabalan’s endeavours in Egypt allegedly include smuggling funds and weapons to Hamas and other Islamist groups, while the Egypt Hezbollah cell oversaw the training of Palestinian militants. In 2010, an Egyptian court sentenced Qabalan in absentia to life in prison for his involvement in the cell. The Saudi government says Qabalan plays an essential role in supervising Hezbollah’s regional activities.
However, according to analysts, the new round of sanctions will have marginal effects on the group.
“What these sanctions can do is diminish the capabilities of some of Hezbollah’s officers,” said Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “A lot of sanctions have been applied before with very little effect on the group. Even when a number of Hezbollah cells were caught in Egypt, which led to the implementation of sanctions on a number of major figures within the group, it resulted in very little in terms of impact.”
Abou Zeid told The Arab Weekly that the group is present in a number of countries while maintaining a very strong base in Lebanon. That hampers the intended effects of international sanctions.
Moreover, with the deadline for the Iran nuclear deal drawing closer, with an easing of international sanctions a likely part of any agreement, many fear Tehran will have additional funds to support Hezbollah.
“It all depends on the behaviour of the Iranian leadership,” Abou Zeid said. “If the Iranian leadership decided to use these funds to improve and increase its operations across the Middle East region, which we’ve seen through its Quds Force and the Revolutionary Guards, then that would be very dangerous, and definitely by extension Hezbollah will receive more funds and will be more capable in operating in a more effect way.”
Abou Zeid went on to say that Hezbollah has suffered shortages of Iranian funds, which put the organisation in a vulnerable situation since it also provided a variety of services to its community, as well as its militant operations.
“Currently there are two different perspectives within the Iranian leadership: One that is affiliated with President [Hassan] Rohani, which is willing to engage with the international community rather than act a negative power in the region. However, the main decision-maker is Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei, as well as the heads of the Revolutionary Guards, who will have the biggest say. So we will have to wait and see,” he added.